Saturday, January 16, 2016

The New Minstrel Show


When it suited his business purposes, David Bowie played the androgynous bi-sexual gay card.  When it hurt record sales, he recanted.  My mother had a pantsuit like that, by the way.  Didn't look good on her, either.


NOTE:  I started writing this entry several months ago, but never finished it.   Now that David Bowie is dead. maybe it is time to re-address it.   While he had a few memorable songs, David Bowie was above all a master at marketing and business.   He is one of the few pop artists to actually own his own songbook and they even invented a new financial instrument, the "Bowie Bond" where he sold off futures in his songs, which was smart, as he did it just before the Internet killed off the music business.   But what got me going about him was how he used sexuality to market his music, when it suited him.  Turns out, it was just a bad drag show.

* * * 

We decided to try the XM radio for six months, paying $36 by money order, to avoid the "negative option" nightmare.   Funny thing, though, I've talked to several people about this, and most use a credit card and are "shocked" when it automatically renews at the regular price of $17 a month.   They crow that they "talked them down" to a mere $11 a month after an hour on the phone.   I think $6 a month beats that, though.

But as a subscription service it is unnecessary for daily life, and frankly, even at $6 a month, it sort of is a waste of money, as they keep playing the same songs, over and over again, just like FM radio.  If I hear "Brown-Eyed Girl" one more time, I will scream.   Too bad, too.  It was a good song,

And while there are "no advertisements" on XM, (UPDATE: There are now tons of them!) just like television, they pepper you with ads for XM, usually far louder than the music.  I am not sure I will renew the service. (UPDATE:  I decided not to).

However, once in a while you find a nugget.   On the 70's channel, they had Alice Cooper (yes, that Alice Cooper) as a guest DJ, and he played the song "All the Young Dudes" and he said that it was a radical Gay anthem of the 1970's.

I was a bit intrigued by this, as I don't recall it being a Gay Anthem at the time - perhaps just in Mr. Cooper's mind.   But it got me doing research, and it turns out the song was written by David Bowie, and no, it wasn't intended to be a Gay Anthem, nor was it, as far as I know.  But the lyrics do have some androgynous lines - as well as lot of rejection of earlier rock genres ("all that revolution stuff").   In the 1970's, you could sell this to "all the young dudes" quite easily.

But it got me thinking about the whole "Glam Rock" movement of the time (which Mr. Cooper was kind of part of, later on) and how it used androgyny and sexual imagery to sell music to teens.   And sell they did, and made mega-bucks.   But like a lot of the music of our childhood that was based on imagery more than musical content, it did not age well.   David Byrne seemed intriguing in the 1990's.   Today, his music just sounds like so much noise (Well, a lot of it does, anyway.  The Tom-Tom club, on the other hand.....)   Old Standards, however, with real tunes, melodies, lyrics, and singing talent, do carry on (which is why the Sinatra channel on XM is its only saving grace).

I am not a big fan of David Bowie.  Yes, I know, there is supposed to be a cult built around him and "Ziggy Stardust" and all.  But frankly, I think that is a bit overstated as part of a marketing ploy, and his talents as a musician are overshadowed by his talents as a self-promoter and businessman.   He set out to be a "Pop Star" and become famous, and like Andy Warhol and a host of other hacks from the 1970's, he did just that.  Listening to his music back then was an act of rebellion.  Today, it just hurts the ears.

Part of what he did was to sell androgyny and teen sex angst to a eager and welcoming audience - which was like shooting fish in a barrel.  The entire "Glam Rock" movement was based on the needs of teenagers, particularly males, who struggle at that age with their sexuality and sexuality issues.   When it sold records, David Bowie said he was Gay or Bisexual.

And in the 1970's, America was pretty Gay.  The whole disco and cocaine thing was very gay, and being "out" was starting to become popular.  Remember that Stonewall and Harvey Milk were both during the 1970's - not the 1980's or beyond.   Wisconsin passed its first gay rights ordinance around this time - but it was not to last long.  It would be repealed in the 1980's.

By the 1980's, it was "Morning in America" - Ronald Reagan was elected President, and the new "Religious Right" starring Jerry Falwell was warning Americans against the evils of sodomy.   Progress not only stalled, it revesed.   Youths were attacking gay men with baseball bats in major cities.  And suddenly, gay men started getting mysteriously sick.
 
David Bowie quickly distanced himself from those gay or bisexual comments, proclaiming them to be mere marketing ploys, and an "error."  Suddenly, being androgynous wasn't selling records, so he ditched that act very quickly.

Despite his marriage, Bowie claimed to be gay in the British music press in 1972, and, in 1976, he came out to Playboy as bisexual. He'd later regret the assertion. "The biggest mistake I ever made was telling that Melody Maker writer that I was bisexual," he told Rolling Stone in 1983. "Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting."
What happened was that being gay, which sold records in the 1970's, stopped selling records in the 1980's.  Glam Rock faded, and was replaced by heavy metal and country rock - both of which were steeped in machismo and heterosexuality.   Hints of gayness, which may have sold records in the 70's were the death-knell in the 1980's.   Gay was bad for business, so he jumped back on the hetero bandwagon.

And it really doesn't matter whether he was gay or bisexual or straight or whatever.   What did matter is how he used sexuality, when it was convenient, as a marketing tool.
 
Rock and Roll, as I noted before, is not some cultural movement, but a commercial one.   Even if it started out as an artistry, it ended up as an industry.  

But Bowie wasn't the first or the last to play the Gay card to make money.   Long before Gays were "out of the closet," Hollywood movies would use effeminate Gay characters to get a quick laugh, much as black characters were often used in the era before the civil rights movement.

But over the years, it was deemed unsavory to poke fun at blacks and other minorities, as the Civil Rights era showed such jokes to be racist.

So that leaves very few stereotypes to poke fun of anymore.   You can't make jokes about Blacks, Hispanics, Italians,  or the Irish.   Canadians seem to be fair game, at least for the folks at South Park (their incessant Canadian jokes in themselves, a commentary on ethnic jokes in general).  But there are few groups left you can rely on for a quick laugh.  And gays are among them.

Of course, today the gay jokes are not as mean-spirited as they were in the past.   But affecting effeminate stereotypes is always good for a laugh.  Jon Stewart, formerly of The Daily Show, was a master at this (as well as the Jewish Joke, told at his own expense, which makes it "acceptable", right?).  During his rein at Comedy Central, Stewart usually had one gay joke per night, usually something along the lines of his pretending to be same-sex attracted to a public figure or guest.

In this era of PC, however, it is far too easy to go overboard with over-sensitivity.   Stewart was funny, and yet unfunny, in that his shtick was pretty much the same from week to week.   Plus, his aggrandized effeminate behavior in these bits was a little too akin to Amos and Andy and the like  - stereotypes he wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.

 Leave it to Jerry Seinfeld to figure out the politically correct Gay Joke.

Other comedians, of course, have a finer touch, such as Seinfeld's famous "not that there's anything wrong with that" bit, which not only sends up (gently) gay stereotypes, but also the emerging era of political correctness (and maybe anticipated the "metrosexual" trend by a decade or more).

But Bowie?   I think it was all a calculated effect, like the Ziggy Stardust nonsense.   Being weird not for the sake of being weird, but to sell records.   And I have a lot less respect for that.

In the music business, of course, he is not alone - far from it.   Most major pop stars became pop stars not by being "discovered" or whatever, but through careful planning and marketing.   Think of Cher (and Sonny Bono) or Madonna.   Not stars by accident, but by design.

Bowie's first hit - "Major Tom" was essentially a novelty tune that came out when the space race was reaching a climax.   And it is odd to me, to see people on the International Space Station singing the song, when in fact it is about heroin addiction.  Oh, plus he dies in space.   I seriously doubt that song really encouraged anyone to join NASA, as the press reported last week.

But one novelty tune does not a career make, and Bowie jumped on the Glam Rock bandwagon, which was piloted by the likes of Lou Reed and the Kinks.  Suddenly, it was acceptable to sing about transvestites and male prostitutes - subjects that formerly would have insured no airplay for your music.   Bowie jumped on the bandwagon and then took it to a new level.   And yea, some of the music is good, I'll give you that.   But I think not as good as the real pioneers of the genre.

By the 1980's, as I noted above, being sissy wasn't very rock and roll, and Bowie went more disco ("Let's Dance") and art rock, as well as a little proto-punk (Tin Machine).   Gone were the pumps and makeup, in were black suits and skinny ties.   Like any good artist - and businessman - he moved on with the times.

This is not to say I am anti-Bowie, but only that we have to put these things in perspective.   Rock and Roll - and pop music - is a huge marketing machine, designed to sell us ideas and imagery, perhaps moreso than the music itself.   The eulogies given over the last week were, well, a little over the top.  Calling Bowie a "musical genius" might be overstating the case a bit.   But of course, this served to sell an awful lot of records - supposedly selling out on Amazon.

Ah, yes.  Death - The best marketing tool any pop artist can have.   Look how well it worked for Elvis and Michael.  Paul McCartney even faked his own death, at one point - and record sales skyrocketed.  It looks to be doing the same for Bowie (unless of course, he really isn't dead).

Looks like the holders of those Bowie Bonds will finally cash in.

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